Chef Markus Gfeller Is Back With His Dining Delight, Pinot
Off a nondescript lane on Bonifacio High Street is Pinot, a restaurant that just may spell the return of well-executed classic European fare. In an age when new dining spots are opening weekly and closings are akin to blood sport, this 60-seater holds its own and brings back memories for many.
For those who have followed the dining scene over the last 30 years, one chef who is top of mind is Markus Gfeller. A classically trained Swiss chef who has made Manila home for the last three decades, Gfeller arrived in the Philippines in the early ‘90s, when international hotels and their chefs held court, wielded their mettle, and decided what was to considered fine dining in the growing city. It was also the time when Billy King, Manila’s rogue chef at Le Soufflé, and Jeremiah Tower, once the toast of America’s culinary firmament, came to Manila to lay low and open his legendary but now defunct Stars restaurant.
Gfeller, the youngest of these chefs is credited with helping redefine the concept of Manila’s fine dining scene at the time. Light veneered walls replaced the dark dining rooms with liveried waiters. The idea of “star chef” was coming of age. His playground was Grassi’s—a contemporary styled restaurant at the Benpres Building in Ortigas Center. When Gfeller hit the stoves, he introduced dishes such as lobster served two ways and risotto topped with foie gras to the emerging restaurant scene. At a time when there was no Instagram and only a few cooking shows aired, Gfeller single-handedly educated his diners.
After five years, he moved on to open and close a string of restaurants—Soleil on Chino Roces and Aqua at the Enterprise Center were all very much in the vein of Grassi’s and were restaurants of choice for privileged diners, but the scene was evolving rapidly.
When Aqua closed, Gfeller went on to consult and to teach, and later opened another restaurant, Cav. An innovative restaurant at the time, he once again aimed to educate the Filipino diner. This time on the pleasures of the grape and wine drinking. After a decade, Cav shut its doors.
The way people eat has changed—they are so exposed and they understand technique. People experiment and travel. The customer is not so easily impressed as in the old days,” Gfeller notes. “I remember to test meat we use our finger, now it’s all science. Our guests are very knowledgeable when it comes to wine. The guests are like sommeliers, so we encourage them to bring their choices.”
Sitting in Pinot’s dining room, done in the mid-century style with dropped pendant lighting, Danish-style rich blue velvet seats that are accented with wood and stucco, one is reminded (if you are old enough) of Grassi’s. Upon entering, you are discreetly lead through double doors, through a portico of botanicals, and like much of Manila’s restaurants du jour, through a large bar cabinet with a treasure trove of gins.
The offerings at Pinot are very Gfeller. Available is a set menu that allows diners to choose the number of courses they would like to enjoy and the rest is left for the “kusinero” (as Markus refers to himself) to prepare his degustation and it does not disappoint.
At a recent press presentation, lunch was served. A pass around of a potato tulle and bacon, and piped foie on toast began the afternoon. It was called a potato tortilla, yet it was much more than a chip. The foie amuse had everyone asking for seconds. The Capiz oyster, poached with a beurre blanc and tapioca and topped with avruga delighted the palate. This is signature Gfeller.
Tuna crudo, another entrée very popular these days, was aesthetically plated with a shrimp snow and black sesame. It was wonderfully flavored, similar to what you may found on a local Hawaiian street corner.
Sea bass, poached in black garlic dashi was uninspired. But the next few items showed that Gfeller is indeed a master of his kitchen.
Called Grand Pieces, and encouraged for sharing among groups, are a maple leaf duck, whole lamb rack, and a rib eye on bone. Each dish was presented to the table, taken to the open kitchen, and plated in full view. The duck was served two ways—the first, an l’orange ragu adlai and then, herb-crusted with a ratatouille and garlic puree. The rib eye was served traditionally with béarnaise sauce, mushrooms, and creamed spinach.
For dessert, the apple galette and the tart au chocolate are Gfeller musts. Do ask for ice cream.
If there is one thing that will keep this restaurant going is having a soul like Markus Gfeller in the kitchen. The business of dining is not for the faint-hearted and it takes skill, and humility to keep going. And for someone who could have taken a back seat away from the fire yet decide to slug it out again means something. Book a table, ask for the chef, and work out your selection. Is this a frou-frou spot? No, it isn’t. Is it worth it? Yes, start easy. Fine dining, Gfeller-style is back.
Pinot Manila, Lane P, Bonifacio High Street, 0998.586.4230